Life Around a Table: Part Three

Clang, clang, clang. The familiar noise rang through the converted convent on S. Seeley Ave. Clang clang clang. The dinner bell: dilapidated from many years of Amate House volunteers beckoning each other to the dinner table.

Slowly all 12 of us would emerge from our post-work activities and gather around a splintered, worn table.  We called it a table, but in reality it was three tables.  Three rectangles pushed together.  It was a makeshift eating arrangement, but most things were makeshift in our lives that year.

After a few minutes of conversation while awkwardly standing in a large circle, which encompassed this beloved table, we clasped each other’s hands and blessed the food.  This was our routine and we never strayed from it.  With a glorious announcement of what the two cooks for the night had prepared for us, we all eagerly rushed into our often crowded kitchen and returned to our seats with our mismatched plates filled to capacity.

I’ve always wondered what this scene would look like from a passerby wandering down the streets of McKinley Park.  Twelve people around a over-sized table talking rather loudly to each about anything you could imagine.  When I imagine such a passerby peering into our dimly lit dining room, I usually imagine them thinking: wow, what a crazy bunch. There’s too many of them to be a family.  I wonder what they are all doing there? 

Ah, but see, they would be mistaken.  We were a family. A crazy family crowded around a huge, unattractive group of tables with a unusual-looking Swan/Santa object standing in as the centerpiece.  We were a family and this was our table.

The food on our table never lasted too long, especially if it was what we affectionately called a “solidarity meal,” which usually meant the cooks had miscalculated the correct portions for a group of twelve and everyone better be happy with what they have, goddammit. But we always had more than enough.

See, the food never lasted too long, but we didn’t come to the table for the food.  No, this table was so much more than a holder of meals and physical sustenance.  We came to the table for each other.  We came to the table to be reunited and re-centered every evening.  We came to the table to lift each other up, challenge each other, and truly know each other.  We came to the table for communion.

We made this table our sacred place.  We laughed, cried, shared, fought, debated, disagreed, rejoiced, and shouted around this table.  More than anything this table represented our lives together.  I remember many nights when I rushed through the front door at 7:30 after being called a motherf… I’ll let you fill in the rest… by one of the teenagers at my worksite or after a day when every kid decided to dump their “hot chips,” which is an enticing combination of Flaming Hot Cheetos and bagged nacho cheese, on the library carpet or a day when the guys had made yet another hole in the Swiss-cheese-like drywall with their soccer antics. I remember many nights when the last place I wanted to be was around a twelve person table.

But I came to the table.  Those nights, I came to the table with the worst attitude.  Those nights, I came to the table in hopes of finishing my food as quickly as possible so that I could escape to my room for the rest of the evening.  Those nights, I came to the table exhausted, burnt out, defeated, and frustrated.  Those nights, I probably didn’t deserve to come to that sacred table.

Yet despite my greatest efforts to remain in a terrible, self-pitying mood, something always happened.  To this day I’m still not sure how, but it happened after every crappy day.  I would come to the table miserable and leave in a much different place.  Let’s get this straight, though, this table had no special powers that zapped bad moods out of you after a “Bless Us Oh Lord.”  No.  Usually I would bring my crappy day to the table and like any normal human being try to spread my crappy day to others…I’d complain about the kids, I’d be a little snippy when the Costco-size bucket of butter took a few minutes too long to get to my side of the table, I’d ignore the glorious details of my housemates’ days.

See that would only last so long, though, because I would always realize that I could never disrupt the joy that lived constantly around this table.  When four of us had bad days, there were eight others to remind us of ourselves.  To remind us of the strength that we all had, to remind us of the importance of what we were doing, to tell their own stories of victory and encouragement from their day.  We were never alone. We were never alone in our misery or our triumph.  And that’s what we learned around the table.

While every night was sacred around that chipped and uneven table, Thursdays seemed to hold an even deeper significance.  I learned everything that I now know and believe about communion around that table on Thursday nights.  Thankful Thursday began the first week we started our year in Amate House.  We would take turns sharing a person, event, or story that we were thankful for that week.  We shared everything from supportive families to health to cheese pizza.  And every week we would pause in a not-so-silent meditation around this table.

Our thankfulness grew throughout the night since Thankful Thursday also happened to be Thursday wine nights.  We would enjoy our community meal with boatloads of cheap red and white wine.   Every Thursday was our celebration. Every Thursday we paused to remember that there is always something to celebrate, to be grateful for, to drink to.  We celebrated each other.  We celebrated our life around the table.  We celebrated together. We celebrated community.

Each day we would travel to our respective work sites.  Bearing the weight of social injustice, non-profit dysfunction and the suffering of the individuals we served on our own.  But we always did so with the hopeful knowledge that each evening we would share that burden together around our table.  No matter the defeats or victories of the day, the table was a constant reminder.  A reminder that we are in this together.  A reminder that we will all join in communion once again.  A reminder that we are one crazy, huge, dysfunctional family that shouts, cries, laughs, and shares with each other.   A reminder that when ever the twelve of us gather around this table, life is sacred and our community is one.


If you missed the first two posts of this blog series, you can find them here:

Our World

“Be our guest, be our guest, put our service to the test…” Round and round I spun as those words bounced off the walls of our community pool.  While most know those words as one of the songs in the childhood movie, Beauty and the Beast, I knew them as “our” song.  My mom and I would climb into the pool during unbearable warm summers. Then she would grasp my hands with a strong, gentle grip and twirl us around and around and around.  Time stood still in those moments.  Nothing else existed but me, my mom and this magical song.  I’d make her sing it to me and spin me around over and over again until I’m sure we were both sick to our stomachs, but it didn’t matter because it was “our” time. ImageMy mom understood my childish world.  This world that only asked for simple joys and undivided attention for a single hour in order to be content.  She knew that world.  She cherished that world.  My mom helped me create that world for myself.  As these Beauty and the Beast sing-a-long days faded, she helped me remember that world.  While she wouldn’t twirl me around or sing to me, she had this magic that was able to remind me of those simple joys, take me back to my world, to our world.  We would go on ice cream or movie dates and get extra hot fudge and an extra large popcorn, because our world always has the BEST foods.  Through high school and into college, my mom could make my stress and anxiety disappear for an hour or so at a time by dragging me back to our world, no matter how reluctant I may have been, in order to have a good giggle session or do something completely silly.  Because in our world, we don’t take ourselves quite as seriously.  After college, she’d steal me away from my life and we’d sit at coffee shops for hours forgetting about the bustle of the city around us, like we were back in that pool and our conversation was our singing. We’d drink cup after cup of dark roast coffee with steamed half and half and eat chocolate donuts, because in our world there must be good coffee and donuts.  Always donuts. 

Now our lives are different.  We still have our world and our time, but we both must be reminded of it.  Life is not as simple as it was when a twirl and a hug cured all pain.  But my mom remains.  She grips my hand with a strong, gentle grip and leads us both back to our world where there is peace, escape and belonging.  The difference is now, I’ve learned the way to our world.  Now I can see when this world has gotten too scary and dark and lead my mom back to the simple joys of our world.  Together we find healing.  Together we still go round and round until all the noise softens and all that’s left is me and her.

I love you mommy!  Happy Mother’s Day!